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9 Surprising Benefits of Water Play and 16 Fun Ideas To Try at Home

Thinking of a fun way to keep your kids entertained on a warm day? What better way than an activity that is not only enjoyable but also highly educational?

You may be surprised at the many benefits of water play and why it is one of the most common activities in early childhood education.

Your kids are likely playing with water at school but why not set up a fun water station at home as well?

What is Water Play?

Water play simply involves playing with water using tools (containers, toys, tools, etc). The water is usually in a large tub or a special sand and water table for kids, like the one below.

Children engaging in water play at a water table

Children love to stand next to a high water table and play with the tools, and they also love to get into the container and immerse themselves in the water while playing.

What are the Benefits of Water Play in Early Childhood?

So why is it important to play with water and how does it help children’s development?

Water is a great substance and is as educational as playing with sand. There are so many benefits of sand and water play in early childhood.

And kids never get bored of it!

This simple activity builds skills in all four major areas of development:

Let’s take a look at a few of the benefits.

Benefits of water play pin

1. Gross and Fine Motor Skills

The development of fine motor and gross motor skills is important during early childhood. Children need to build control of their large as well as small muscles, and what better way to do this than while having fun.

Water play for toddlers and preschoolers is an easy way to build physical skills.

Movements such as pouring, dumping, filling, dunking, splashing, mixing, squirting, squishing, and squeezing are great ways to develop these skills.

2. Concentration

When children are playing with water they tend to lose themselves in the activity and spend long periods of time exploring and playing with it. This encourages children to focus and any activity that holds a child’s attention for a length of time will contribute to increasing their concentration span over time.

The benefits of this spill over into formal learning, where being able to concentrate in the classroom is a vital skill.

3. Early Mathematical Skills

Playing with water is an excellent way for young children to develop essential early mathematical skills. Learning these skills through play is necessary before formal mathematics education begins in the grades.

child learning about volume and capacity with water play

As children fill and pour from different-sized containers they learn about volume and capacity They experience concepts such as full/empty and more/less.

They also learn about displacement when they put objects/themselves into the water, as well as conservation – that the amount of water remains the same when poured into a container of a different shape.

4. Science Concepts

Water play also allows children to experience science concepts in a hands-on way. Children learn early physics by discovering the properties of water, such as:

  • Water makes sand heavier
  • Water influences the texture of sand as you add more water or let it dry
  • Water falls through space (e.g. through a sieve)
  • Air (wind) moves water 
  • Water is a liquid because it pours
  • Water takes the shape of the container it is poured into
  • Water always runs downhill
  • Water can turn from solid to liquid (when warm) and back to solid again (in the freezing cold)
  • Some items float on water and others sink

5. Language and Vocabulary

A child’s vocabulary builds as he experiences new things and learns to describe and understand what he is doing. When playing with water and the various tools, toys and containers, children build new vocabulary around these items as well as the actions they are performing.

They also tend to engage in dramatic play around the water table which is good for language development and learning sentence structure.

Some ideas of new words and concepts children could learn:

  • Spade
  • Funnel
  • Shovel
  • Sieve
  • Eye-dropper
  • Water wheel
  • Pour
  • Swish
  • Squirt
  • Squeeze
  • Splash
  • Empty
  • Full
  • More
  • Less
  • Equal

6. Social Skills

When children play together, with peers or siblings, they often become more energetic, loud and riled up. They also frequently manage conflicts that arise.

Playing with water is one of those activities that tends to calm children as it is so absorbing and relaxing that they often play harmoniously and interact peacefully for lengthy periods of time.

They develop social skills as they learn to share and cooperate as they play alongside each other, or together towards a common goal.

7. Relieve Tension

Water is a calming and soothing substance, more so than any other material in fact. Children get much pleasure from pouring, swishing and squishing about in it.

It tends to absorb attention for long periods of time, which is especially great for tense children as it calms them down.  

For children who are feeling frustrated or angry, actions such as squirting water are a healthy way to release some tension.

8. Sensory Exploration

During the early years, children are learning about the world around them through their senses. In the preschool years, activities that engage the senses will provide great learning experiences.

Water play is an excellent form of sensory play that children should have frequent opportunities to engage in.

9. Problem-Solving Skills and Creativity

Problem solving skills and creativity are vital in today’s world that should be developed in early childhood. They require finding solutions to challenges during play and thinking out-of-the-box.

Here are a few examples of these challenges:

  • How to add just the right amount of water to the sand so that it can be moulded without falling apart
  • How to make a funnel to get the water into a container with a narrow neck
  • How to make the water green with food colouring with only the primary colours
  • How to build a ramp for the toys to slide down
  • How to get the water to run from one structure to another (build a waterway with toys)

How to Set Up a Water Play Area for Preschoolers and Toddlers

setting up a water play area in a blow up pool

Here are a few tips to follow for successful water play for children:

  • There really are no rules. All you need is some form of a water play table or container and some tools or utensils.
  • Keep it fun by trying out different containers and offering a variety of tools and toys to really stimulate your child’s imagination.
  • On a warm day children can be barefoot and lightly dressed and on a cool or rainy day set up an indoor water table on a raised surface (and wear aprons) or in the bath.
  • Try to have a regular water play day at least once a week

Resources for Water Play

A water container can be any size and can be situated indoors or outdoors. Here are some ideas of containers:

  • Trough
  • Bucket
  • Water table
  • Blow-up swimming pool
  • Big plastic sandpit tub
  • Bath
  • Basin
  • Kitchen sink

Or let your child play supervised with toys in a swimming pool or the ocean!

There are many toys and tools that can be purchased for sand and water play but you can also use your imagination and offer things you can find at home.

water play toys for kids

Here are some examples:

  • Cups and containers of different sizes
  • Buckets
  • Sponges
  • Spades
  • Pieces of hosepipe or tubing
  • Shapes
  • Toys or objects that float
  • Toys or objects that sink
  • Slides
  • Spoons
  • Things that go on water e.g. ducks and boats
  • Water pistols
  • Syringes
  • Eye-droppers
  • Water wheels
  • Funnels
  • Bottles
  • Natural materials e.g. pebbles
  • Watering cans
  • Scoops
  • Squeeze bottles
  • Balls
  • Small teapot
  • Sieves
  • Pans
  • Balloons
  • A container with holes in it
  • Whisk
  • Bath crayons

Many of these materials can be used for loose parts play.

Indoor and Outdoor Water Play Ideas for Kids

Children playing with water

In order for water play to be successful, all you need is lots of space, time and water.

You can simply offer any tools or containers listed above or you can try out one of these ideas in your sand water tables to make water time a hit!

Here are some fun and unique ideas for indoor and outdoor water play for toddlers and preschoolers.

1. Ice

One of the most fun water activities for preschoolers is to play with ice and discover the properties of water when frozen or warmed up.

Offer ice cubes or crushed ice. Add some food colouring to the ice and watch the effect it has when it melts in the water.

2. Paint

Messy sensory play can be heaps of fun. Offer some powdered paint or liquid paint and see how your child gets creative with it.

3. Soap

Give your child a small bottle of dishwashing liquid and some straws. Instead of preparing the water with soap, rather let your child discover how much soap is needed and how to make bubbles with the straws.

4. Food Colouring

Food colouring makes beautiful shapes and patterns as it falls into the water. Drip it into the water with an eye-dropper and swirl it around or mix it up and watch the water colour change. Add another colour and see if the colours mix.

5. Music In Water

Watch this awesome video showing how you can play with sounds and musical notes using everyday items and a bowl of water. This is a HUGE learning activity you shouldn’t miss out on!

6. Sand

Add some sand to the outdoor water table or trough and let your child make some mud pies. As a variation, offer a tub of dry sand and a jug of water and let your child experiment with slowly pouring the water until the desired consistency is achieved.

Offer cups and moulds to make shapes out of the sand.

7. Cornmeal

As a variation to the activity above, add cornmeal or even wheat to an indoor water table if you’d prefer not to have sand indoors.

8. Sponge Play

Make a bowl of water and get your child to soak up the water with a sponge, then transfer the water to an empty bowl by squeezing it out. This is also good for strengthening the finger muscles.

9. Floating and Sinking

Give your child lots of different items and see which ones float and which ones sink. Offer things like corks, little plastic ducks, boats, pebbles, coins and ping-pong balls.

Here are more floating and sinking activities to try.

10. Cork Race

This is a fun game to try. Each person must get their cork across the water to the other side of the tub by blowing it through a straw. The winner is the person who’s cork touches the other side first.

11. Bath Time

Turn daily bathtime fun into a huge learning experience by offering cups and all kinds of plastic kitchen utensils. Run a shallow bath and leave the water running for a while so your child can fill the containers and play with the running water.

12. Tub In the Bath

If your child wants to play with water indoors and you don’t want her to have another bath, you can contain the mess a bit by sitting her inside the bathtub with a bucket or tub of water with toys in it. She can splash and play and make a mess without any water leaving the bath.

13. Kitchen Play

Fill the kitchen sink with water, food colouring and soap and let your child stand on a chair and play with whatever he can find in the kitchen.

14. Water Balloons

Play with balloons filled with water. You could either be brave and throw them at each other on a warm day, or draw a mark with chalk outside and aim and throw the balloons, seeing who’s balloon hits nearest to the mark.

15. Gardening

The simple activity of gardening is a great way to keep entertained and learn whilst at it. Let your child take care of the plants with a hosepipe and watering can. Play with the nozzle and switch between a flow of water and a light spray. Then leave the hosepipe or sprinkler on and run through it.

16. Nature Tub

Children love playing with natural materials. Fill the water table with leaves, flowers, grass, bark, twigs, pine cones, etc. See which materials float and which sink, watch the water run over a pine cone and discover the properties of water with this interesting assortment of natural goodies.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these ideas for encouraging water play in the early years.


Would you like a year of done-for-you, ten-minute activities to teach your 3-5-year-old through play? Get your copy of the Learning Through Play Activity Pack for only $27.

Activity Pack for preschoolers

Source: Hendrick, H. 1990. Total Learning: Developmental Curriculum for the Young Child. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York.

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